This is such a difficult story to watch. It’s violent, sadistic, unspeakably cruel. There is such an all-pervasive sense of hate surrounded by an unmitigated feeling of helplessness. It may be an educational film; it definitely is an important one; it is not entertaining. There are hard lessons in here; brutally depicted. Whatever you know about slavery, whatever you’ve heard about it, read about it, believe about it – it’s all in here. The families ripped apart; the whippings and the lynchings; the desperate acts of defiance that ended in retribution. This movie just keeps ratcheting up the pain and inhumanity until it becomes fully intolerable.
It’s the true story of Solomon Northup (Chiwetel Ejiofor), a well-to-do, free Black man, sold into slavery in the years prior to the Civil War. The cinematography (Sean Bobbitt) really evokes a feeling of the deep south; the cast includes a large number of A-list stars in small, but pivotal roles – Paul Dano, Paul Giametti, Benedict Cumberbatch, Alfre Woodard, Sarah Polley, Brad Pitt, and others. Michael Fassbender and Ejiofor give powerful multi-faceted performances on the opposite sides of the violence.
And once again, the director, Steve McQueen, who directed “Shame,” also with Michael Fassbender, goes unafraid into territory that others have avoided — and tells his story with understanding and courage. This film will leave you enraged, infuriated, ashamed to be a human being. But, it will give you an understanding of the evils of slavery that you will never get so powerfully any other way.